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Authors: John Hodge

Collaborators (5 page)

BOOK: Collaborators
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Bulgakov
It's difficult.

Vladimir
For me – maybe. But you're a writer. You do this for a living.

Bulgakov
It's difficult to get a real insight into the man.

Vladimir
Read the books.

Bulgakov
I read them!

Vladimir
So read them some more! You have three weeks until his sixtieth birthday!

Bulgakov
As an author, you have to love your characters.

Vladimir
Of course. Even I can understand that. And I'm sure you will.

Bulgakov
Really? You think so? You think I might find some empathy, some connection – with a loathsome psychopathic despot.

Vladimir smiles. Does not rise to the bait.

Vladimir
Well, you did write to him, once, didn't you?

Bulgakov
That . . . that was years ago.

Vladimir
Eight years ago.

Vladimir produces a typed letter and reads.

‘I can exist no longer, I am persecuted by authority . . . my work is banned from the stage . . . I have been brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown and request that you have me exiled from the USSR . . .' And then?

Bulgakov does not reply.

Perhaps you've forgotten. You wrote your whiney, self-pitying letter. And then one day, in your shitty little apartment, the telephone rings, and it rings, and eventually, you answer it. Do you remember?

Bulgakov
Yes.

Vladimir
Out of all the thousands of crackpots who write to him every day – he phoned you. And?

Bulgakov
We had a conversation.

Vladimir
You had a conversation. With him.

Vladimir produces a transcript. He reads the part of Stalin.

(
As Stalin.) We received your letter. You want to go abroad? Perhaps we ought to let you. But tell me, have we really upset you so much?

Then the part of Bulgakov and so on.

(
As Bulgakov
.) Well . . . er . . . um . . . sir, you see, I must declare that I want to . . . I want to . . . to . . . Well, now I think about it, perhaps it would be best for me to remain here.

(
As Stalin
.) You are right. I think the same. Where would you like to work, Comrade? How about a job in the Moscow Art Theatre?

(
As Bulgakov
.) Yes, sir, I would like to work there. I did put in an application, but . . .

(
As Stalin
.) Put in another. Perhaps this time they will have a place for you.

Vladimir folds away the transcript.

And?

Bulgakov
They did.

Vladimir
He rescued your career.

Bulgakov
Rescued it from his own oppression.

Vladimir
Let's not split hairs. The point is: he gave you a second chance.
The White Guard went on at the Art Theatre. Eight hundred performances later, you were the toast of literary Moscow. Now don't you owe him something?

Bulgakov says nothing.

Vladimir picks up the phone and dials.

Hello, Comrade, it's Vladimir. Listen – is anyone using the rooms at the moment? I've got a very important guest and I wanted to show him round.

He winks at Bulgakov.

Great. Now? OK? We'll be quick. I promise.

He hangs up.

Right. Let's go.

Vladimir leads Bulgakov across the stage.

Stepan follows.

They stop at the cupboard.

Vladimir draws it open.

The Cleaner, in an overall with a mop, steps out.

She also carries a folded tarpaulin which she hands to Stepan.

Stepan proceeds to unfold it on the floor.

Do you know what she does?

Bulgakov
No.

Vladimir
Guess.

Bulgakov
No.

Vladimir
Guess!

Bulgakov
I have no idea.

Vladimir
She cleans the tarpaulins.

Bulgakov still does not understand.

You see, down here, Bulgakov: this is where it actually happens. Before this, of course . . . the arrest . . . the interrogation . . . the confession . . . the trial . . . and then, you put on a white cotton shirt and you come down here. The wooden panelling prevents ricochets, which is also why we use a small-bore pistol –

Stepan draws out a pistol.

Like this one.

Vladimir pushes Bulgakov down on to his knees.

Stepan jabs the barrel into the top of Bulgakov's spine.

One shot to the back of the neck.

Stepan pulls the trigger. Click. Bulgakov jolts at the sound.

Often we need a second shot.

Stepan pulls the trigger again. Click.

You'd think that would be enough, right? You'd think two bullets, to the base of the brain – that would surely be enough to kill a man. But sometimes – we need a third.

And again. Click. Bulgakov jolts again.

And after that, she cleans the tarpaulin.

Stepan puts his gun away.

Vladimir hauls the trembling Bulgakov back to his feet.

Stepan folds up the tarp and hands it back to the Cleaner.

She disappears back into the cupboard and Stepan slides the door closed.

Now I know you're a tough guy. You're not afraid of death – so I'm not going to threaten you. But I want to see some script by tomorrow morning. The opening scene. Whatever. I don't care. Words on the page. And don't think about yourself, Mikhail. Think about Yelena.

Enter Yelena in a nightgown. She gets into the bed and lies down.

Vladimir and Stepan exit.

For a beat, Bulgakov is alone.

Moonlight fades up on the bed.

Yelena is asleep.

Bulgakov crosses and sits on the bed. He is desperate, stuck.

The telephone on its stand starts ringing.

Yelena does not wake.

The ringing continues.

Bulgakov goes to the phone.

He picks it up.

Bulgakov
Hello?

The voice is male, rough.

Voice
Can I help you, Comrade Bulgakov?

Bulgakov
Who is this?

Voice
Go to Mayakovskaya metro station. Take the northbound tunnel for three hundred metres. There you will find the entrance to a side tunnel which you should take, then climb the steps. Make sure you are not followed.

Bulgakov
Who are you?

Voice
I'll be waiting.

Click. The line goes dead.

Bulgakov replaces the receiver.

A pause.

Then he goes to the bed and grabs his coat.

He goes to the front of the stage.

Yelena wakes.

She pulls on a gown.

Yelena
Mikhail! Mikhail!

She cannot find him.

She exits, calling:

Vasilly! Praskovya!

Bulgakov crosses to the desk.

He stops and turns to face the cupboard.

The door slides open.

Slowly, a man emerges, silhouetted from behind.

Bulgakov steps back in shock.

The light changes to reveal his face.

Stalin
So who did you expect?

Bulgakov is speechless.

The dictator is in his favoured peasant garb: boots, baggy tunic, simple jacket buttoned up.

He holds an unlit pipe which he sucks on from time to time.

You know where you are?

He smiles, continues with theatrical mock secrecy.

Directly beneath the Kremlin!

Bulgakov is still bewildered.

When they were building the metro – it was my idea – secret tunnel, snug little cubbyhole for yours truly – I always knew it would come in useful some day – and look – here we are! Just you and me! Now why don't you sit down?

Bulgakov slumps on to a chair.

Vodka?

He pours two. Passes one to Bulgakov, who drinks.

Stalin holds his but does not drink.

I hear you're struggling.

A beat.

With the play, Mikhail. It's supposed to be a surprise. But I hate surprises. More than anything in the world, I think, I hate surprises. It's supposed to be kept a secret – a secret – from me! – which, frankly, is annoying – but some other time . . . Anyway: you're struggling.

Bulgakov
Yes, yes, I am . . . sir.

Stalin
Please. Joseph.

Bulgakov
Yes, Joseph, sir, I mean, no, it's not going well.

Stalin
Not going at all, as I understand it.

Bulgakov
You're right.

Stalin
I think we need candour from the start. The good news is that I can help you. In fact I want to help you. It would be a privilege for me, a mere philistine, to collaborate with the great Mikhail Bulgakov. To collaborate! I mean, just to watch you create, that would
be the privilege. You see, I love the theatre. I always have. You know, the Art Theatre, they gave me this badge. Look, a little . . .

Bulgakov
Seagull.

Stalin
Yes, a seagull. In recognition of my support. You know when they pinned it on, I was in tears. I felt the hand of . . . of . . .

Overcome with emotion, he cannot finish.

Bulgakov
Chekhov?

Stalin
Yes – upon my shoulder! And yet I knew I was unworthy. You know what they call me – The Great Friend of Actors and Theatre, with a capital letter at the start of each word, as though that makes it true. Still, I love the theatre. And I love your work.
The White Guard – fifteen times! I am probably your number-one fan. Almost to the point of obsession. Scary! OK, so you're quite clearly an enemy of the state.

Bulgakov attempts to disagree.

No, no – let's call a spade a spade. It's what you are. A class enemy. A talented class enemy, it must be said, but that only makes you more dangerous. You are a subversive worm burrowing its way into the body of the nation intent upon devouring us from within. Nevertheless, allowing for that: I like you. So what's up?

Bulgakov
Well . . .

Stalin
Joseph.

Bulgakov
Joseph, it's like this. I've read a lot about you, but I don't think I'm getting –

Stalin
The real me.

Bulgakov
The real you.

Stalin
Tricky. But not any more. Now you can get it from the horse's mouth – though don't ever, ever refer to me that way in public. I have ideas. A couple of scenes.

Bulgakov
Scenes?

Stalin
Yes. Characters, dialogue, action. If that's all right with you?

Bulgakov
Yes. Sir. Joseph. Of course.

Stalin
Now, the clock is ticking. Shall we begin?

He claps Bulgakov on the shoulder and ushers him to the desk. He feeds a sheet of paper.

Act One, Scene One – hold on – I forgot – you have a title?

Bulgakov
Young Joseph
.

Stalin
Young Joseph
. I like it! It's about me when I was young. It's better than your others, if you don't mind me saying so. Less pretentious. I like a title that tells it like it is. Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. Young Joseph the . . . whatever. ‘Heroic' would fit, obviously, but I leave it up to you. Whatever you choose. Doesn't have to be ‘Heroic'. Could be another word altogether meaning heroic. What do you think?

Bulgakov
I was just going to call it
Young Joseph
.

Stalin
Just . . .
Young Joseph. Nothing else? That's all?

A silence as Stalin absorbs.

Bulgakov
I could change it –

Stalin
No! You're the playwright. It's your play. If you say it's
Young Joseph the
. . . nothing, then that's what it is. I'll just have to learn to live with it.
Young . . . Joseph . . .

Bulgakov
I'm sorry.

Stalin
Don't apologise. It's your play. Now where were we? Act One, Scene One – the Russian orthodox seminary in Tbilisi.

Bulgakov types as Stalin dictates too fast.

Young Joseph is learning to be a priest. This cobbler's son, born into poverty, his nature forged on the rough tough streets of Gori, his father driven to despair and drink by capitalist exploitation – this boy has clawed his way up through intelligence and endeavour – What's wrong?

Bulgakov
Could you slow down?

Stalin studies him.

Stalin
Are you ill?

Bulgakov
No.

Stalin
You don't look so well. Maybe it's just this light . . . your skin, it's sort of . . .

Bulgakov
I'm fine. Just nerves. That's all.

Stalin
Of course. The artistic temperament. I should have allowed for that. Anyway – what have I got you sitting there for? You're not the typist, you're the genius! Let's swap! You come and sit here – leave the slave labour to me.

BOOK: Collaborators
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